“Dig out that screwdriver I bought, will you?” I ask, focused on more important matters.
She leans over the seat, digging around and producing it as I cut left onto a residential street where I park next to a dark house. “What are we doing?”
“Covering our tracks,” I say, taking the screwdriver from her. “Stay put.” I climb out and make fast work of removing both license plates, returning to set them on the seat between us.
“Won’t we get more attention without plates?” she asks as I start driving again.
“Yes,” I agree. Cutting to the left and back to the access road, I turn into the parking lot of a twenty-four-hour Denny’s with rear parking. Quickly claiming a spot between two pick-up trucks, both with Texas plates, I put us in idle.
“Stay put,” I instruct again, grabbing our plates and squatting low as I exit the truck, and then making quick work again of removing the plates from the truck next to us and replacing them with ours. Once I’ve attached the new plates to our stolen vehicle, I return to Gia and put us in Drive.
One problem solved. Next up: the one sitting next to me.
ABOUT AN HOUR into the ride, my eyes are heavy and the gas tank is empty. I make a quick stop for gas at a deserted twenty-four-hour store, careful not to be spotted by the attendant. Despite a need for caffeine and food, I skip a trip inside the store and opt for a drive-thru not far down the road, parking in a dark corner at a closed retail store as Gia and I all but inhale our burgers and fries.
“That was so bad for my waistline,” she murmurs, finishing her food and stuffing the wrappers into the bag. “But I can’t seem to care. I might die soon. I’m not doing it without one last order of French fries.”
“I don’t give a damn about my waistline,” I say, stuffing my wrapper in the bag. “And if you’re telling the truth, you aren’t going to die. I won’t let you.” I pull onto the road again. “Unless I fall asleep at the wheel. In which case, we both just had our final meal.”
“Well, thank you for wiping out my momentary comfort. Good thing you aren’t a doctor. You’d have a horrible bedside manner.” She drapes her new Walmart hoodie over her lower body and turns toward me, folding her legs in front of her on the seat between us. “I’d offer to drive again, but I know you’re not going to let me. Sooo, back to Plan B: How about them Cowboys?”
Desperate for anything to stop my mind’s continuous instant replay of the fact of Jared’s damning silence, I decide ‘what the hell’ and reply with, “They never should have fired Jimmy Johnson.”
“Isn’t that the truth? You know Jimmy has to be secretly gloating at Jerry’s failure to run the team himself.”
Impressed with her reply, I test her knowledge with a number of questions and find myself in a worthy debate over the merits of certain players, and eventually shift topics from the Cowboys to the Longhorns. Miraculously, I blink and an hour has passed and we aren’t far from Lubbock. I’ve avoided both sleep and all the demons running around in my head, causing havoc. “How’d you get so into sports?”
“Texans love our football. My father certainly did.”
“Did?” I ask, seizing the first opportunity I have to find out more about her. “Why past tense?”
“He’s gone. Car accident years ago.”
I don’t miss the choked sound of her voice that she tries to cover by clearing her throat, nor do I offer her an awkward expression of sympathy that solves nothing. “And your mother?”
“Died of an aneurysm while giving birth.”
“I’ve never heard of that.”
“It was an underlying condition triggered by the stress of labor.”
“I didn’t know her, so I don’t feel the impact the way I do with losing my father. It’s more like this empty hole in my life that is ever present.”
I give her a quick glance. “Any siblings to help fill that void?”
“I was the first for my parents, and my father never remarried.”
“That’s a long time to never remarry.”
“He was terrified of losing me. I don’t think he had the capacity to fear losing someone else. And he was passionate about his work. It consumed him.”
“Which was what?”
“Both of my parents were researchers for the University of Texas in Houston. That’s where I grew up.”
“Impressive. I come from a family of archeologists. I suspect we both had some interesting dinner-table conversations.” I pause a moment and shake my head, the realization hitting me. “Wait. Research? Is that how you learned to make a bomb?”
She laughs a bit sadly. “Yes and no. My father said I had a knack for making things that weren’t supposed to blow up quite explosive. It terrified him. Needless to say, my lab time was quite stressful to my father.”
I inhale, her explanation jolting me with a realization: She set a bomb. A bomb blew up my family home. It’s a close connection I do not like. “How is it that your father was a researcher and you ended up a secretary in Austin?”
“I finished college at Berkeley, but California didn’t suit me. The university offered me a job, but the program was cut before I got home. I tried to stay, but without the university, all I had was missing him.”
“You’re a chemist?”